Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say

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Articulation

This is an imaginary passage I have composed that has annoying and confusing articulation marks.

If you are not a wind player, the fact that this is annoying may puzzle you. It’s like this: as a wind player, from the very beginning you receive strict instructions on the use of the tongue. If there is no slur mark over a note, you initiate the note with the tongue, if it is under a slur mark, you don’t. Simple as that, a digital, on – off situation. The passage above, as written, contains too many possibilities for easy reading. It involves guesswork, and that involves time. In some cases, a composer may want to leave the details of articulation up to the player, and that is fine. I enjoy 18th Century repertoire for this reason, and it is perhaps worthwhile for composers to familiarize themselves with what J. J.  Quantz has to say about the possibilities of articulation in his treatise “On Playing the Flute”.  (If for nothing else than to understand the weight of history that flutists bear.)

Time spent on interpretive decisions is interesting time. Time spent on guesswork is not.

This is the 21st Century, and when I see music that is exactly notated, I want to play it exactly and I want to know what it is I have to say, and how I should say it. Because that is what articulation is all about: how you pronounce your phrase. I want to think that the composer has put some thought into this, as I am putting some practice time into his or her piece.

And, dear composers, please don’t say about a slur: “oh, it’s just a phrase mark.” Really? I am a musician, I make phrases for a living. I don’t need to be told to make one. But I do need to know when to use my tongue and when to hold it. And please don’t just say “oh, play that legato.” It doesn’t answer my question because I can articulate legato as well as slur something legato. Which should I do?

So if I haven’t pissed you off yet and you really want to see the possibilities for articulating the above passage, here they are.

The first two staccato B-flats are probably meant to be played:

Articulation

 

but perhaps the composer meant:

Articulation

I would really like to be sure.

Now, the two E’s, the second one having a staccato, could be played:

Articulation

But did the composer mean: Articulationwell, maybe not, but how can I be sure? So I interrupt practice to contact him or her, or interrupt the rehearsal time to ask, or take time out of the rehearsal break in which I have twenty other things to get done.

Several years ago I was working intensely on solo improvisation. I kept a notebook with comments on segments I had recorded. The words “Say something, dammit!” were written in block notes at one point. When you listen to music, if it articulates nothing, it says nothing.

 

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Harmonic Exercises, with Articulation too!

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When playing through the harmonic series, the second overtone (a twelth above the fundamental) is a great check point. When students begin learning harmonics, this one often proves elusive because of the tendency to cover too much of the embouchure hole. By rolling out a bit and blowing down, it usually speaks. The following exercise I find useful because it begins by alternating between the normal fingerings and the harmonic fingerings. For those new to harmonic exercises, it provides a good anchor.

Harmonicsstudies

The next page gives a workout for the lips, and introduces articulation to harmonics, although it is also useful to practice legato in bars 13 to 38. I find articulation exercises with harmonics, such as those in Trevor Wye’s book, to be great stabilizers and strengtheners for the embouchure.

Harmonicsstudies2

 

Continuing with articulation, I am further inspired by Paul Edmund-Davies’ “The 28 Day Warm Up Book”. His articulation exercises are a mainstay of my warm up, and I decided to go one further and translate some into harmonic exercises. (Read my review of this book here.) This first exercise strengthens the elusive second overtone:

PEDHarmonics

 

This next one overblows the third overtone. It is for those already strong in this area; please don’t over do it, or any of these exercises. It is useful to combine these variations with Edmund-Davies’ original.

PEDHarmonics2

 

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Robert Winn: Musical Exercises to Develop the Technique of the Tongue

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In many ways this is a book after my own heart. My years as an undergraduate with Bernard Goldberg were fraught with the re-working of my articulation. It would have been very useful to have such a book as this, with its written explanations (provided in English and German), numerous excerpts (some not found in other compilations), and standard as well as original studies.

When one takes on the task of trying to describe the mechanics of articulation and relating it to one’s native language, there is a risk of getting bogged down in linguistic terminology. For the general flute-playing public I think this book walks the line very well between Too Much Information and the vague “finger-pointing-at-the -moon” sort of stuff you find elsewhere.

Once you do mention linguistics though, pedants like me crawl out of the woodwork with fingers and tongues wagging. There are several things I would like to wag on. Mind you, I am a pedant, not an expert, so my comments are below in the “Pedant’s Corner”.

It was very enlightening to read about some of Winn’s key concepts. He points out that some articulation difficulties are linked to the fingers in a way I hadn’t thought about, and going through some of the studies helped me sort that out. The position of the teeth, in front and in back, was something I had also not considered before.

All in all I enjoyed reading this book as well as playing the studies, although the text could have used a good editor for English punctuation and clarity. (I can’t comment on the German). I do hope that future editions will see to this.

Pedants Corner:

1. One basic aspect is ignored, that of aspiration in English and German consonants. If you are an English speaker, you will say the “T” in the name “Todd” differently from the “T” in “stick”. Todd’s “T” is aspirated. The tendency to puff air rather than release it from the mouth can pose a problem for beginning flute students of languages that do this.

2. In mentioning the tendencies for Russian and Bulgarian, Winn is correct that there is a large build-up of physical tension for the consonant “T”. One reason for that is it is produced with the tongue much further back than in English, touching the alveolar ridge. And it is never aspirated. However, that is only half of the picture. I don’t know about Bulgarian, but each Russian consonant is paired with its palatalized twin, a much softer version. A crude way of explaining this is to imagine the consonant followed by a “Y” (as in “you”) “TY” is very soft, produced very forward in the mouth and is more of a release than an attack. I spoke to someone who believes this linguistic ability is responsible for Denis Bouriakov’s amazing articulation.

 

 

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